United Takes the Airport Experience to Higher Grounds


    Polaris business-class lounge.
    A mock-up of United’s Polaris business-class lounge. Image via United Airlines

    APEX Insight: United Airlines has made several recent commitments to improving its services, but not just in the air – at airports, too. From the introduction of illy coffee service, to the roll-out of nine international United Polaris lounges and the transformation of gate areas in collaboration with OTG, the airline’s investing heavily in taking the airport experience to new heights.

    When United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz took the stage earlier this month to unveil Polaris, the airline’s new business-class product, he admitted the Chicago-based carrier was in need of a bit of an overhaul. “I understand we have a lot more work to do,” he said. “I’ve made a challenge to our team to rethink how we do business.” Polaris, and its promise to transform the airline’s international business cabin experience, is evidence of this rethinking in the air – but a closer look at the slew of recent announcements from the airline suggests that United’s commitment to change starts from the ground up.

    Illy's dark roast will debut on United Airlines flights this July. Image via illy
    Illy’s dark roast will debut on United Airlines flights this July. Image via illy

    Beginning as most things should, with a bold cup of coffee, United announced in November 2015 that it would swap out FreshBrew for the premium Italian espresso coffee of illycaffè. Starting this week, illy’s dark roast will be served for free in all cabins, but it’s been available in United Club lounges at mainland US hubs since December. News of the caffeine fix came on the heels of the unveiling of new United Club lounges in Atlanta and San Francisco as a part of the airline’s sweeping $100 million investment to transform its club locations.

    Polaris contributes to the reimagining of United’s lounge experience, too. Chicago O’Hare International Airport will open the first of nine United Polaris lounges around the world. “The Polaris experience begins not when you get on the plane, but the moment you step into our lounge,” Munoz said at the press event. Showers and suites with products from Cowshed, state-of-the-art workspaces and chef-inspired dining options bring style and leisure to the pre-flight experience.

    iPads are fixed to tables and counters in Gate Lounges at Newark and Houston airport. Image: OTG
    iPads are fixed to tables and counters in Gate Lounges at Newark and Houston airport. Image via OTG

    But for passengers flying economy, the airline’s partnership with airport-experience company, OTG, promises to elevate the on-the-ground part of travel as well. A $120 million redesign of Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport brings OTG’s “tech-infused hospitality” into several restaurant and retail fixtures – from 55 new dining options to iPad-equipped, cocktail-bar stocked and 10,000-outlet-strong Gate Lounges. Terminal B and Terminal C South of Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport – another major hub for the airline – will also be transformed over the course of 2017.

    “The Gate Lounges were very much developed in partnership with United,” says OTG’s Eric Brinker, VP of Experience, Marketing and Communications. While the area looks considerably more spacious than rows of adjoined seats, OTG’s table and counter designs actually increased seating capacity – a goal that was key for the airline. “It’s a much more comfortable environment where passengers can charge their phones, play games and order drinks and products,” Brinker says. “Whether it’s a business traveler charging up and checking their e-mails, or a couple sharing a bottle of champagne and seafood before their flight, the Gate Lounge area is equipped to facilitate all passenger behaviors.”